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Human traffic jams

The Hungarian EU presidency is set to pose a challenge not only for high diplomacy, but also on a practical level. The six-month term will see visitor numbers grow by 40,000 and getting all those people to their destinations from Ferihegy will not be easy.

As Malév’s scheduled Brussels flight lands at the Ferihegy international airport, its passengers start scrambling for some means of transportation to the city proper. Given that it’s a quiet day, the process is going pretty much like clockwork.

Some approach the booth of Főtaxi, the contracted taxi partner of operator Budapest Airport (BA), and are off with one of the cars queuing up in front of the arrivals gate within minutes. In the meantime, the more courageous incomers are trying to make sense of the BKV ticket vending machine while others still are opting for the shuttle bus.

If you’re familiar with the area, Ferihegy does have excellent connections to Budapest. The scheduled bus gets to the Kőbánya-Kispest metro station in about 30 minutes and the M3 can take you downtown in another 10. By car, the ride is a straight line to the central part of the city that takes 15 minutes if there isn’t any heavy traffic. One can also take a train from Ferihegy 1 that gets you right to the Nyugati railway station.

Taxi!

But for the legions of diplomats coming to Budapest on a daily basis, and have an expense budget, the obvious choice is to take a cab.

Budapest Airport recently terminated relations with its former exclusive taxi provider Zóna and awarded the lucrative deal to Főtaxi. As such, other cab companies may only operate at Ferihegy with strong limitations. While they may take passengers to the terminal and make pickups for registered trips, they are not allowed to idle around waiting for a fare.

This is an arrangement that has a handful of taxi drivers grumbling as they wait for their passenger in the arrivals lobby, sign in their hands. They are unhappy that Főtaxi has such a huge advantage and also complain that if they were to park their cars somewhere nearby, there is a good chance that it would have unwanted consequences in the form of pesky police or parking wardens.

Although there were rumors and reports lately that Főtaxi isn’t exactly on top of the situation and travelers often have to wait for ages to finally get a car, a cursory walk around Ferihegy shows that the company is giving its full: the nearby parking lot is stacked with their cabs.

Failure to communicate

But the preparation for the presidency didn’t always go smoothly and also sparked some tensions between BA and the government. The state called a public procurement tender to provide bus services from the airport to the city and popular traveler destinations, like the bigger hotels. The contract was won by Weekendbus, which then arrived with its buses at Ferihegy. However, BA was apparently not informed of this procedure at all and was surprised to see unknown buses pull up and start picking up passengers.

Accordingly, airport security proceeded to remove the provider, which claimed it had every right to conduct its business having won the related tender. BA said that since it had not consented to any arrangement of the sort, and as a private company operating the airport, it had the right to bar any service providers that want to deliver passengers.

“We are still in negotiations on the matter, but the most burning conflicts have been resolved,” said Gábor Somogyi-Tóth, senior advisor to BA’s CEO. As he explains, the presidency is more important for the country as well as BA, so the company gave advance approval for Weekendbus to be there. Yet, the matter is not over and could prove a burden in the future. “Ferihegy has contracted transport partners who will now be outraged that a competitor arrives out of nowhere to take away their business,” Somogyi-Tóth told the BBJ. Although BA is trying to be flexible, the announcer at the arrivals terminal still reminds flyers that Ferihegy’s official partners are Főtaxi and the ASM shuttle bus provider and that passengers should opt for one of the two if they want quality services.

Painting the grass green

According to Somogyi-Tóth, Ferihegy made extensive preparations in the run-up to the presidency’s start. BA and Malév representatives met with state secretary in charge of the presidency Enikő Győri in December and looked at every minute aspect in detail to ensure that the travelers are satisfied and that everything is running smoothly. “For instance, Enikő Győri mentioned that she found that one of the ATMs was out of cash. We instantly notified OTP on the matter and asked them to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Somogyi-Tóth said.

Queried as to whether BA would act the same with other providers as it did with Weekendbus, such as taxi companies, if there was demand during the presidency, he emphatically said “yes,” since his company and Hungary have an obligation to make sure the term is successful.

Nickel-and-dime matter

Regardless of the developments, Hungary has a tight budget for the presidency and the figure is cast in stone. “We have no more than €85 million for the purpose,” Ferenc Robák, government commissioner overseeing the operative aspects of the presidency told the BBJ. Asked how the figure, substantially lower than the amounts other countries spent on their respective terms, could be achieved, Robák explained that the government will rely heavily on sponsorship arrangements. “We have partner companies providing things like the television sets in the lounges, the mineral water at the venues, or the venues themselves being state-owned locations instead of renting conference rooms from hotels,” he said.

In this spirit, the government, Malév and BA inaugurated an exclusive lounge building near the Ferihegy 2 terminal owned by the state postal service Magyar Posta. The facility was originally meant to be a sorting station and it will fill that role after July. As Somogyi-Tóth noted, this is one of the few structures on the territory of Ferihegy that “rides the fence,” meaning that it is situated on the perimeter but opens toward both to the airport and the area outside it. The building will be operated by Malév and is hoped to provide adequate temporary accommodation to delegations waiting for their rides to their meetings, while also relieving the airport itself of the additional workload.

Brussels or bust

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the time needed to finally get through the security screening when departing. Even a lull period at Ferihegy necessitates more than an hour of standing in line to finally walk through the scanners and reach your flight.

In this respect, those traveling to Brussels during the next six months will be on easy street. Even before the official start of the presidency, self check-in terminals were installed to accelerate the process, although their use seems to prove problematic for many travelers. But since economy and business class are still the same plane, travelers on Brussels flights will be enjoying priority, hence they have the luxury of using the separate security corridor when going to their flights. (Gergő Rácz)